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Women's 'Work' is far from done

Years back there was a mad spate of ‘women’ themed exhibitions. Many of these shows inevitably had ‘women’ in the title and exclusively showed art made by women. More often than not they tied in with Women’s day and month and were government-funded initiatives designed to show how men were doing something to change gender inequalities. Ironically, exhibitions appear to operate as demonstrations of action, though they don’t really lead to any ‘activity’ or action. Oddly, or not so strangely, these ‘women exhibitions’ sometimes turned out to be ‘disempowering’ for women, though the manner in which an exhibition can be ‘empowering’ in relation to a feminist agenda ought to be more thoroughly interrogated.

It was on one such show in 2009, specifically Bongi Bengu’s Innovative Women: Ten Contemporary Black Women Artists, that this ‘disempowering’ culture raised its head when the then Minister of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwana demanded that Zanele Muholi’s photographs of naked lesbians locked in an embrace be removed from the exhibition. She labelled them pornography. At the time we were understandably more outraged by her bigotry, intolerance and abuse of power than concerned that in a context set up to boost and celebrate female talent, excellence, she had chosen to undermine another woman and therefore the initiative itself – which the DAC had funded.

‘Celebrating’ female talent, which takes other forms like Top Women in business/arts awards, is always tarnished somewhat by a degree of paternalism and exceptionalism in the sense that such initiatives imply that only a handful have the ability to succeed and should be put on pedestal. It is a bit like the ‘Smart-Woman’ phenomenon, where supposedly ‘smart’ women’ are referred to as if they are a rare breed that ought to be given special attention. As such men wishing to appear liberal and evolved forever sing the praises of a ‘smart woman’ – it’s a backhanded compliment – like praising a black person for being ‘articulate’ I am digressing….

Fortunately, female-centered exhibitions - or should I say: shows with reference to the female gender? - are now less simplistically conceived, less paternalistic as they used to be. We are in the midst of another wave of feminism are we not? Now male artists are included in these exhibitions – though in the case of Women’s Work, now showing at Iziko SA National Gallery (Sang), this may be because they are seen to be ‘behaving’ as women – more of that later. In the other exhibition, Our Lady, curated by Kirsty Cockerill at New Church Museum in collaboration with the Sang curators, men, the male position, eclipses that of the female subject and it has to be said, the female artists too.

This is partly due to the uproar caused by SWEAT (Sex Worker and Education and Advocacy Taskforce), who questioned the display and demanded the removal of a portrait of a woman by Zwelethu Mthethwa (pictured above left), currently standing trial for the murder of Nokuphila Kumalo. Cockerill says she expected a backlash and suggested that its presence on the exhibition was designed to prompt a discussion around the physical abuse of women. This may well be the case, however, it seems that placing a contentious artwork on a wall may not be the best way to deal with the death of Kumalo and the thousands of women murdered by men in this country every day. Simply placing an image on a wall is not enough of a gesture – it either needs to be framed within an exhibition that directly deals with this issue or is supported via a multi-pronged mode of activation of the unspoken ‘subtext’ – such as placing articles detailing the alleged crime alongside the artwork – if you want the viewer to weigh up the image against reality – feed them the necessary information to do so. However, as Mthethwa has yet to be found guilty this would have caused legal problems for the gallery. Until his guilt has been established, his art simply can’t serve as a touchstone for anything - even if he looks guilty – he is now claiming he can’t remember what he did on the night of the murder. Surely, the artwork might have more effectively elicited a debate around femicide by being placed next to a work by Penny Siopis figuring the slim figure of a bound woman floating in a pool of red?

Many women, of which I include myself, take offence to the word “lady” which delineates a very specific notion of femaleness (composed, polite and subservient to men). This no doubt is why it was chosen for the title, however, I am unsure whether its wry use was ably communicated. Then there is the fact that the majority of the representations of these titular ‘ladies’ are executed by men. Yes, the notion of a ‘lady’ is a male construct, however, does simply replaying this ‘empower’ the female viewer? Is it too much to expect curators of an exhibition, which relies on a canon, a gallery and museum archive that is mostly composed of works by men, to be able to ever navigate its way to ‘empowering’ women? What does that mean in the context of an art exhibition anyhow? Are the female curators from New Church and Sang able to ever ‘overwrite’ the script set via the art?

A gendered show advancing only female artists as was the case back in the day would have irked too – evoking the idea of ‘women’s art’ – artists who are women first, artists second. Museum curators need to think of new ways to deal with their archives – and communicating to the public. An unconventional approach, like gaps on the wall to mark out absences, faults and issues, in the archive, live performance elements to engage directly and respond to artworks and additional texts, discussions could have upturned this little ‘lady’, I believe. It may also be self-defeating for women (female critics such as myself and other critical voices) to ‘undo’ each other’s work – Cockerill and SANG curator Ernestine White are at least advancing a discourse around women, however flawed. They have also taken some quick steps to satisfy SWEAT – such as encouraging them to stage a protest on the steps of the gallery at the opening – though permitting a protest is a contradiction surely. It was also agreed that: “A portrait of Nokuphila Kumalo painted by Astrid Warren and commissioned by SWEAT (and/or a police mugshot that it was based on), will be exhibited as part of the upcoming At Face Value exhibition,” – according to a join statement issued by all the parties – Sweat, Iziko and New Church Museums.

Women’s work is far from done. Certainly an exhibition of that name, centered on textile artworks drawing from craft traditions once associated with women, curated by White at the same gallery makes this clear in other ways. Embracing the art of male artists producing textile related craft artworks has presented a number of other nasty loopholes. Does a craft object become an art one, when men adopt its mode of production? This is one of the questions I will raise on my next #artcrawl titled Fabrication, which is inspired by this exhibition.

Undoubtedly it is the art of male artists such as Nicholas Hlobo who popularised this crafty turn in contemporary art spaces. His work, like that of others (Barend de Wet, Igshaan Adams, Athi-Patra Ruga, Pierre Fouche) showing on this exhibition, set out to blur the gender lines. Nevertheless, it is likely Hlobo's art and his textile mode was more readily accepted because he was male. Conversely, ‘feminist’ artists – like Siopis - have gravitated towards male-dominated modes of art production like painting – yet in doing so they haven’t 'legitimised' painting as the seeming presence of male artists (in this exhibition) have done for the ‘craft-centered medium. As with the “Our Lady” exhibition, the art by the male artists at Women’s Work dominates because their adoption of these once unconventional art mediums is subversive – there is nothing seemingly transgressive in a female artist weaving. In this way the female artists have to seek out other devices - visual or conceptual - to retain an ‘equal’ footing in the territory – Tamlin Blake for example choses unconventional weaving materials like newspapers and disturbing imagery – like disembodied, suspended legs.

As such male artists have unwittingly come to dominate as they do in all spheres, though this is not their express desire or motivation; mostly they chose the textile-craft mode as they identify with women. However, this does involve co-opting former ‘female territory’. It is done so fully in a way that women remain sidelined and are further objectified and maybe even disempowered - this is perhaps best exemplified via the work dubbed Womb Experience by Zola Ndimande, where visitors can literally climb into a large knitted female body part that gives life. One is sort of left with a sense with this exhibition that male liberation – that is men’s freedom from male stereotypes and ‘labour’ activities and appearance, dress – comes at the cost of women. It is not in spite of this conclusion that Women’s Work is an interesting exhibition, but because of it. Both of these ‘women’s exhibitions are long overdue; they don’t ‘empower’ women per se, they lead us back to the status quo. Maybe that is what art can only ever do, expose rather than undo the status quo. Curators can’t reinvent the wheel, only display the parts with the hope that viewers will observe them more closely. - an edited version of this opinion piece was first published in The Sunday Independent, December 11, 2016.

Fabrication, an artcrawl is focussed on textile driven art in galleries in Cape Town. It will conclude with a studio visit with Pierre Fouche. To book visit:


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